Bob Hugin is stuck in New Jersey’s registration gap.
The 64-year-old retired pharmaceutical company CEO has spent more than $23 million –most of it his own — in a bid to become the first Republican to win a United States Senate seat in New Jersey in 46 years. He faces a struggling incumbent, Democrat Bob Menendez, who was on trial last year on bribery charges (he was acquitted) and then severely admonished by the Senate Ethics Committee last winter.
New Jersey has a certain affection for first-time candidates: Phil Murphy, Frank Lautenberg, Jon Corzine, Bill Bradley, Brendan Byrne, H. Alexander Smith, Albert Hawkes and Charles Edison.
Hugin has the money to compete, and Menendez has been upside-down in the polls for a few years now. Hugin has been up on TV since the spring and he’s not pulling any punches. His ad last week accusing Menendez of hiring underage prostitutes is about as tough as it gets.
A Monmouth University poll released last week has Menendez’s favorables upside-down at 28%-45%. Nearly nine out of ten New Jerseyans (88%) said they were aware of Menendez’s 2017 trial.
So why is Hugin stuck in the low 40’s?
Bob Franks used to joke that politics would be a great business if not for two things: the issues and the voters. For Hugin, it’s the environment and the numbers.
If Hillary Clinton were president and this was her mid-term year, there would be a completely different discussion going on. The conventional wisdom was that Menendez, a sharp political strategist from old school Hudson County, would not have run if 2018 had the makings of a red wave. Instead, Hugin has Donald Trump, whose own approval numbers in New Jersey – 42%-55% — are worse than Menendez.
A bad national political environment is an extraordinary weight for Hugin to carry, but it’s not fatal. Republican governors in Massachusetts and Maryland, two of the nation’s bluest states, are on their way to landslide re-elections despite the national trend. And sometimes local issues prevail, like in the 1974 Watergate year when the Democratic governor of Ohio lost re-election by a 48.6%-48.2% margin after adopting a state income tax.
The Monmouth poll put Menendez ahead by between nine and twelve points, depending on turnout models. Both candidates are doing well in their base (Hugin 93% of Republicans, Menendez 85% of Democrats), and Hugin has a 44%-42% edge among Independents (unaffiliateds) that is within the margin of error. Democrats lead a statewide generic House ballot by twenty points, 56%-36%. Nearly two-thirds of New Jerseyans think whatever Menendez did was no worse than other politicians and just 22% think his behavior was worse.
But more than anything else, Hugin is facing a substantial gap in voter registration numbers.
There are 921,531 more Democrats in New Jersey than Republicans, as of September 30. That number has grown steadily since Menendez first ran for the U.S. Senate in 2006.
In 2006, the Democratic registration edge was 260,066. Menendez defeated Tom Kean, Jr. by a 53%-44% margin. Six years later, the Democrats registration advantage grew to 702,723 and Menendez won 50%-39% against Joe Kyrillos.
Hugin was at 40% among likely voters in last week’s Monmouth poll. That’s about the same as Republicans usually are at this point in the campaign. The apples and oranges is the voter registration gap.
The gap between Democrats and unaffiliated (Independent) voters is also narrowing, with Democrats on track to outnumber unaffiliateds for the first time within the next few years.
Unaffiliated voters presently outnumber Democrats by 161,724. That gap was 733,717 in 2012 and 1,669,214 in 2006.
In 2001, the last time Republicans had a governor and majorities in both houses of the Legislature, 55% of New Jersey voters were not affiliated with either political party. In seventeen years, that number has dropped to 40%.
Democrats made up 25.3% of the voters in 2001, while 19.5 were registered as Republicans.
In 2018, Democrats have grown to 37%, with Republicans at 21%. In raw numbers — and understanding that we’re not talking about the same voters – as unaffiliateds have lost 15% of their market share since 2001, 80% of those voters are now registered as Democrats.
New Jerseyans use a different issue matrix to decide who they want as a U.S. Senator and who they want as governor.
Despite the blueness of New Jersey, Republicans have held the governor’s office for 24 of the last 37 years. Democrats have not re-elected a governor since 1977 and Republicans have done so three times since then.
Republicans are 7-6 in New Jersey gubernatorial elections over the past 50 years, but during the same time Democrats are 16-1 in U.S. Senate races and haven’t lost one sine 1972. Democratic presidential candidates have carried New Jersey in the last seven presidential elections (1992 to 2016); the state voted Republican in the six elections before that.